Since emerging as the biggest winner in the 12 May parliamentary elections in Iraq, Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr has been basking in the glow of the international media as the country’s new political leader who may even be a potential ally against Iran.
Instead of clichés in the world press of a maverick young cleric and an anti-American outlaw, Al-Sadr is now being welcomed as an eventual “king-maker”, a “populist”, or even a “nationalist politician”, “anti-corruption crusader”, and possibly “Iraq’s saviour”.
For all of the drama of the Iraqi elections, Al-Sadr is now expected to take centre stage as the country prepares for a new government. Understanding the unusual political portrait of this powerful Shia leader is becoming more pertinent to stakeholders than ever before as a result.
A political bloc led by Al-Sadr won the country’s parliamentary elections in May, with his Thaaroun, or “On the Move Towards Reform Alliance”, winning 54 seats in parliament in the vote.
The 44-year-old Al-Sadr is not expected to become prime minister as a result, but his list’s victory puts him in a strong position to pick someone else for the job.
Al-Sadr has long been viewed by US officials and the Western media as an unpredictable and enigmatic warlord who led an insurgency against US forces following the ouster of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Ostensibly, Al-Sadr is the last Iraqi politician who could expect US backing after Washington showed an inclination to see Iraq’s incumbent Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi re-elected.
However, the possible emergence of a new Iraqi government led by Al-Sadr’s coalition could open the way for US strategists to redraw his image if Washington is forced to deal with its former foe.
A closer look at Al-Sadr’s new image drawn by Western pundits and diplomats shows a leader who is trying to reinvent himself from being “a radical cleric” and “a sectarian militia chief” to a “realistic, composed, articulate and pragmatic” political leader.
One key item in the new projection of Al-Sadr’s re-invented leadership traits is the fact that he is among the few Iraqi politicians willing and able to stand up to Iran’s influence in Iraq.
For his part, Al-Sadr has successfully recast himself as a nationalist leader who joined a coalition of Iraqi secularists and communists campaigning on a non-confessional platform in the elections.
His coalition campaign programme put forward as its main goal rebuilding the Iraqi state on a civic and democratic basis and promoting anti-corruption policies.
Since his coalition was declared the winner of most of the seats in the next parliament, Al-Sadr has insisted that Iraq’s new government should be made up of professional technocrats in order to stamp out sectarianism, nepotism and inefficiency.
Amid all of this, many are asking what Al-Sadr will bring to the complex Iraqi political scene of his own personality and skills in order to confront the daunting challenges and underlying conditions at play in Iraq.
Based on the experience of the last 15 years, it is safe to say that both objectivity and caution are required before making assessments of the results of Iraq’s parliamentary elections and the turn of events they could unleash.
Analysts who claim to know with any certainty how Al-Sadr’s leadership will crystalise in the coming weeks and months will be engaging in tenuous prophecies.
Indeed, deciphering Al-Sadr will remain an uneasy if not impossible task.
Many of the actions Al-Sadr performed following the declaration of his election victory may have been determined by his desire to position himself as a champion of Iraqi nationalism and reform in the face of the fierce competition and even opposition he is expected to face.
Since then, Al-Sadr has also emerged as the type of politician some of Iraq’s Sunni neighbours are now hoping to see steering the country’s politics away from Shia Iran and towards reconciliation with the Iraqi Sunnis.
The most pertinent question now is whether Al-Sadr can live up to his own promises, as well as to the high expectations inside and outside of Iraq, becoming the man who can end Iraq’s misfortunes and bring lasting peace to the beleaguered nation.
In a country racked by civil struggles and dominated by confessionalism, the success of any political leader will depend largely on his ability to meet underlying challenges that can be life-or-death issues.
Against this backdrop, any progress Al-Sadr can make in the coming few months should go beyond solutions to the political jockeying for position over forming a new government and towards achieving the broader political objective of rebuilding Iraq on a new basis.
As things stand, any breakthrough will entail forming a new government that will reflect the interests of all the blocs and get everyone on board. However, even this is unlikely to end the sect-based power-distribution system responsible for the government’s dysfunction and all Iraq’s ills.
Iraq’s post-Saddam political system established confessional power-sharing arrangements that energised the country’s long-marginalised Shia majority and boosted its religious identity.
For Al-Sadr to succeed in ending confessionalism and restoring a broader sense of Iraqi nationalism, he will need not only to abolish the unwritten protocols of quota-based power-sharing, but also to overturn the entire political system, including by rewriting the constitution and the election laws.
Al-Sadr has so far backed the idea of rebuilding Iraq as a democratic and inclusive “civic state”, broadly defined by proponents as a political system built on individual representation and not on sectarian or ethnic identities.
He also advocates a sort of Iraqi nationalism that provides vague safeguards protecting the political and social rights of other ethnicities within the framework of a unified Iraqi state.
However, Al-Sadr, whose family occupies a leading position at the top of the Shia religious hierarchy, is unlikely to condone alternative political arrangements that will undermine the post-Saddam Shia empowerment and weaken the Shias’ de facto control over the state apparatus.
What the wishful thinking about a “reinvented” and “transformed” Al-Sadr fails to grasp is that the emergence of his group as the largest party in Iraq’s elections does not mean that he holds real power in Baghdad and can push for a new direction for the country.
There are considerable limits and probably even too many red lines for the region’s and Western policy-makers, who are now betting on Al-Sadr’s win to try to engineer drastic changes in Iraq, especially if these entail a reversal of the status quo in the country by breaking the hegemonic control of the Shia establishment.
The half-baked analyses of Iraq that have become fashionable in the Western media should not be blind to simple mathematics, which says that even as the largest party in the incoming parliament Al-Sadr’s bloc does not have a blank cheque to change the status quo.
The cold reality in Iraq, it has always turned out, is more complicated than that, and sooner rather than later betting on Al-Sadr’s electoral victory to initiate reforms and change in Iraq will prove to be nothing more than cautionary tales.
The pundits and policy-planners will then realise that nothing in Al-Sadr’s statements thus far indicates anything other than a more sophisticated marketing of himself as the most powerful and possibly the only leader of the Iraqi Shias.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 May 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: Deciphering Muqtada Al-Sadr